Periscope Depth

we gon’ find you, we gon’ find you

I’m frankly and legitimately torn on the dustup in Wisconsin.

On the one hand, as an economist I dislike cartels. Cartels band together to raise the price of their product, using intimidation to keep members from breaking away. We wouldn’t cheer if a group of airlines teamed up to inflate the price of a plane ticket. We wouldn’t be fans of oil companies who blackballed producers who tried to sell a cheap barrel of crude. So we shouldn’t be fans of employees who try to inflate the price of labor.

On the other hand, I am labor. Anything that makes it easier (or harder) for employees to collectively bargain for health care, retirement benefits or increases in wages makes it easier (or harder) for me. Even if I’m not in a union. Sure, unions are anti-competitive, but nothing says I have to be a cheerleader for economic efficiency – especially if it’s at my expense.

It’s not as if the owners are going to start playing fair if workers stop forming unions. Especially in the case of state employees. Since the state of Wisconsin has a monopsony on the labor of state employees, it makes sense that state employees would form a monopoly – a cartel – to counter-balance it.

Obviously, I’m glossing over a lot of important distinctions. For one thing, corporate cartels and labor unions aren’t equivalent. Corporations have limited liability for their losses, for one thing; auto workers who lose their job (absent the existence of unions) don’t. But I’m also handwaving away the tradition of intimidation – either through peer pressure or threat of violence – that unions use to keep members in line. So if I’m being unfair, I’m being unfair to both sides.

So I’m pretty ambivalent about the showdown in Wisconsin. Except on one front: I love end runs around the democratic process. I love the idea of a state budget being gridlocked because half of the state Senate just up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T. Can they stay gone? Can we do this more often?